Apparently the electric car boom is over – for the time being, at least – before it really started. Someone needs to tell the politicians and the true believers.
You see, as U.S. President Barack Obama was proposing richer subsidies for EVs and their ilk in his country, the cognoscenti of the auto industry were gathered at the 82nd Geneva International Motor Show to celebrate the internal combustion engine in all its glory and guises – from frugal and efficient to excesses worthy of the Real Housewives of Los Angeles.
What happened to the EVs and their low-emission stepchildren, hybrids? They've been staples of the auto show circuit all over the world for at least half a decade. But not here. You could colour this Geneva show many different shades, but EV "green" was not one of them, with only one or two exceptions.
That doesn't mean auto makers here big and small didn't showcase nifty ideas about how to juice fuel economy and lower emissions. Not at all. From Mazda to Ford to Honda to Volvo to Peugeot and more, we saw downsized and maximized gasoline and diesel engines, stand after stand in the stifling Palexpo Exhibition Centre beside the airport.
The nifty new Ford B-Max, which CEO Alan Mulally said will eventually go on sale in North America, will be sold here in Europe with a three-cylinder, 1.0-litre EcoBoost turbo gas engine. Honda showed a 1.6-litre diesel for the European CR-V, which Honda Canada should offer, and if General Motors buys the remaining 93 per cent of Peugeot we might just hope to see the ailing French automaker's 1.0- and 1.2-litre three-cylinder powerplants now going into the Peugeot 208.
Car company after car company talked up the enormous potential of the internal combustion. Klaus Draeger, BMW's head of research and development, told reporters that car companies are getting more realistic about the outlook of the market by 2020.
"We think 10 to 15 per cent of all vehicles by 2020 will be electric," he told just-auto.com, "but that leaves 90 per cent that will be a combination of internal combustion. There's been a little mismatch between the number of articles published on EVs versus conventional."
Heresy? Five years ago in Frankfurt, yes. Back then, when the EV hype first began raging, all we heard at European car shows was the battery-car mantra. Doubters were dubbed nabobs of negativity. Yet here in Geneva, even as General Motors was accepting the European Car of The Year Award for the electrified Chevrolet Volt and its Opel sibling, the Ampera (after also winning North American Car of the Year in January), back at headquarters in Detroit, the world's biggest auto maker was announcing a five-week shutdown of production. Not enough people want to buy the Volt despite its excellent design and range-anxiety-reducing on-board generator.
Here's how Draeger summed up the EV reality: "Let's see how people buy our (electric) products. Let's bring the product to market, but keep the company profitable." That from the head of the braintrust behind BMW's massive, impressive and truly creative EV program.
Make no mistake, BMW is committed to electrics. The battery-powered i-Series city car is slated to go on sale at the end of next year. The marketplace will see some emission-free vehicles trickle into dealerships right across the board, in fact, and for one simple reason (and it's not because consumers as a group are clamoring for them): politicians are in love with EVs. They are crafting regulations designed to give EV a boost, too. For instance, European Union regulations compel auto makers to reduce carbon dioxide output radically by 2020.
And yes, to be fair, the i-Series had a nice little space in Geneva, but its display was modest compared to the compelling showcase given the new 3-Series. More important to BMW's future is the Mini brand, which allows the company to tap into buyers who want smaller, cleaner cars. If that's not enough, BMW is developing a new line of front-drives that promise greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.
The fact is, for at least the foreseeable future, EVs will sell in numbers more consistent with low-volume niche models and specialty cars – like the Bentleys, Ferraris, Maseratis revealed here, not to mention the top-of-the-range BMWs and Porsches. Electric cars, hybrids, and fuel cell cars? They were here, but mostly tucked away in corners, behind smaller cars like that nifty little Ford B-Max.
Garnering the most buzz, though, were rides such as Bentley's concept SUV, which surely will become a production car. Owned by Volkswagen of Germany, the British luxury brand unwrapped a truly massive machine to oohs and ahhs. Not of approval, but of astonishment.
Hideously overwrought, the Bentley EXP 9F concept SUV has a 6.0-litre, twin-turbocharged W-12 engine, a massive grille and huge headlights. This bauble for the most tasteless of the nouveau riche will list for more than $250,000 if – no, when – it arrives in a year or three. Not that it will matter much to the environment, but there might be a hybrid version, too.
Or take the new Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, all 740-horsepower of it from the V-12 under the hood. Figure that to list for at least $350,000. The limited-edition Aston Martin Zagato, at more than half a million, has a V-12 rated at 510 hp. And so on, from the Porsche Boxster to the Maserati GT Sport, and BMW's 6 Gran Coupe.
For something utterly over the top we point to Lamborghini's Aventador J, a one-off topless design already sold to a European buyer for 2.5 million euro, or about $3.3 million. And not to be overlooked was the Bugatti Grand Vitesse, a supercar with 1,200 hp that can go from 0-100 km/h in 2.6 seconds. Price: about $2-million-plus.
The exception to the supercar rule here in Geneva was the Infiniti electric Emerg-E concept sports car. A two-seater with a bubble top, the Emerg-E is super fast thanks to twin 150-kilowatt electric motors. Pretty sexy looking, too.
The market for electric super cars is a fraction of that for gasoline ones, though. Which brings us back to small cars, which were key in Geneva. Take the third-generation Audi A3, which we'll likely see next year as a sedan. The story here is of the creative use of parent Volkswagen's resources. We were told the A3 represents the leading edge of VW's latest take on an engineering system for engines, suspensions and parts. Audi officials did talk about a possible hybrid version of the new A3, but didn't get into extensive detail.
Perhaps the hit of the show among affordable cars was Ford's new B-class minivan. The B-Max is clever, clever, clever. The highlight is the Ford Easy Access Door System, which allows for an unobstructed entry and exit. The trick here: hinged front doors and sliding rear doors integrating the central body pillars.
"The Ford B-Max really challenges traditional small-car thinking, and pioneers a concept not attempted by any other manufacturer," Stephen Odell, chairman and CEO of Ford of Europe, said at the unveiling. "Its ingenious design opens the doors – quite literally – to exciting new ideas about what's possible with a compact vehicle."
Ford CEO Alan Mulally told me the 2013 Ford B-Max will be available with low-CO2 emissions gasoline and diesel engines in Europe and it will also be the first European car to offer the Sync in-car communications system. And he added that it most likely will have a spot in Ford's North American lineup. Exactly when he would not say, but he was pretty emphatic about the B-Max having a future in Canada and the United States.
But EVs? No one really dwelled on them. Most car company executives talked about the reality of EVs, that they're a fantasy to the average consumer, even with taxpayer subsidies.
In other words, EVs continue to pose more questions than answers. Questions such as: Where will mass-market EV buyers come from when it's possible to buy an efficient vehicle like the B-Max for half the price of a Volt? And what about the batteries – range and durability and cost – and convenient charging stations and procedures? And on and on and on.
Everyone agrees that in a few decades, car makers must and will find ways to power cars with something other than gasoline and diesel fuels. Obviously, the car companies will continue to develop EV and hybrid technologies and bring vehicles so equipped to market – in limited numbers, of course.
Among the very vocal dissenters: Toyota, which has a huge stake in hybrid technology, and Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both Nissan and Renault, who has the led charge with pure battery cars. Ghosn said sales of the all-electric Nissan Leaf might hit 50,000 in the United States this year now that production is commencing in Tennessee. Meantime, here in Geneva, Renault introduced the production version of the Renault Zoe, a battery-powered compact.
So there were a few EV-tinted green shoots sprouting here and there. But it seems the era of EV hype and hyperbole is over. The cold reality of the marketplace and consumer demands has replaced the high-fiving optimism of the recent past. It was inevitable.